22 January 2020
FIFA president Gianni Infantino (left) and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at the opening game of this year’s World Cup in Russia. Photo: Reuters
FIFA president Gianni Infantino (left) and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at the opening game of this year’s World Cup in Russia. Photo: Reuters

FIFA’s flirtation with Saudi Arabia cools amidst Khashoggi case

FIFA’s recent Council meeting in Rwanda was being heralded ahead of time as one that would profoundly and irrevocably change the nature of world football. In the end though, the meeting was a damp squib, an anti-climax that has delayed any real action until next March (when the next Council meeting takes place in Miami).

Following months of speculation, during which Saudi Arabia was being strongly touted as one backer of changes to FIFA’s Club World Cup (CWC), football’s world governing retrenched from any developments in the competition. Instead, a taskforce has been created to address relevant matters and will report to the Council in March.

The outcome caught many people by surprise, as FIFA president Gianni Infantino has travelled to Saudi Arabia several times in recent months, and has often been seen fraternizing with the kingdom’s assumed leader Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Indeed, at the opening game of this year’s World Cup in Russia, Infantino was pictured seated between MBS and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Furthermore, with Japan’s SoftBank reportedly providing financial support for the proposed competition and Chinese officials even claiming their country would be a venue for the tournament, it was suspected that Infantino had put the delivery of a new CWC center-stage of his 2019 presidential election campaign. Many had assumed that Saudi Arabia’s new found influence inside FIFA would seal the deal for Riyadh.

Yet all of this appears to have come to naught, at least for the time-being. European football’s governing body UEFA had been making threatening noises that its representatives might walk out of the Council meeting to prevent a vote on the CWC taking place. In particular, UEFA had previously cited concerns about the intense pressure on players to participate in an ever increasing number of games.

The relevance of this point was somewhat ironically reinforced by FIFA’s decision at the Council gathering to prevent Spain’s La Liga from staging club games overseas. This curtailing of Spanish ambition likely reveals something about both FIFA’s game and that of FC Barcelona (a club that had agreed to play a league match in the United States, against local rival Girona). In simple terms: money and the posturing of respective parties in its pursuit.

As was routinely witnessed when he worked at UEFA, Infantino has nevertheless proved adept at trading-off the demands of richer football nations with those of smaller, poorer ones. Hence, his intention not to relent in the face of Spanish pressure and to commit to stronger global equality is a classic example of his favourite bargaining strategy. The Swiss official has also proved skilful at growing the size of football’s financial cake, without radically altering the proportions given to respective stakeholders.

In short, the damp squib Council meeting could therefore have been an attempt to stop Spain making a play for lucrative market territory. It could also have been a move to keep everyone on-side, with the taskforce a way for Infantino to buy time and placate dissenting voices. However, one suspects there is rather more to last week’s shenanigans than money alone. After all, in the weeks leading up to FIFA’s Rwandan get together, Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at his country’s embassy in Istanbul.

The associated international outcry has caused many businesses to run scared of the likely consequences for those seen as being associated with the kingdom, MBS and Riyadh’s government. This was evident at a recent investment conference in the capital city, from which several economic and industrial luminaries withdrew. This marked a rapid turnaround in sentiment towards the Gulf nation, and was unexpected given Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military campaign in Yemen which few businesses seem to have protested against.

The narrative in sport around Saudi Arabia this year has been one akin to the new Klondike, with several sports having made a beeline for the bucks now being spent by the country’s sports authorities. Indeed, notwithstanding Khashoggi’s death, a low-key clamor is still going on amongst some of world sport’s most influential businesses for contracts with the Saudi government. One interpretation of FIFA’s taskforce decision therefore is that it is simply stalling for time, deferring until later any official links to Riyadh for fear of becoming embroiled in a proliferating international scandal.

Yet there have perhaps been important signals from a Japanese corporation, SoftBank. The Tokyo-based multinational conglomerate has been touted as the money behind Saudi Arabia’s sporting ambitions, not least in its apparent pursuit of FIFA’s CWC. This is just one element of a much broader strategic relationship between the corporation and Riyadh, SoftBank having become a strategic partner of the Saudi public investment authority. So close has been the relationship that CEO Masayoshi Son has often be seen sitting next to MBS at important or high-profile meetings.

However, relations between SoftBank and Saudi Arabia have recently been somewhat cooler than in previous times. For instance, at the end of September their work together on the world’s biggest solar power project was prematurely ended, whilst recent edginess in financial markets (brought about by the Khashoggi incident) has seen the value of SoftBank shares falling significantly. Maybe it should not have been a surprise that the Japanese corporation’s name was conspicuous by its absence at FIFA’s latest Council gathering.

It is conceivable that MBS’ troublesome nature may have become too much for SoftBank to countenance, especially when faced with investor unrest. However, his erratic decision-making could also be a factor too. Indeed, despite the hype surrounding Saudi Arabia’s sports strategy, it is only over the last few months that a contract to prepare the strategy has been awarded to an American consultancy. Which rather suggests that MBS may have been talking the talking amongst the great and good without necessarily being in a position to walk the walk.

Which is possibly what Gianni Infantino, presumably to his electoral horror, has only just discovered. What might have seemed like a route to financial stability for FIFA and another term in office for him, has ultimately become something rather less palatable. Last week, instead of proclaiming Saudi Arabia as an important FIFA partner, Infantino instead denied direct or indirect sovereign involvement in the new CWC. Whether this is still true next March remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: Saudi Arabia’s influence on world football has been profound, but not in the ways that were anticipated.

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Mohammed bin Salman with SoftBank Group Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son. SoftBank’s $93 billion Vision Fund drew nearly half its money from Saudi Arabia. Photo: Reuters

A picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest in front of Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul. Photo: Reuters

Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.